It seems that 911 services went down in isolated pockets all over the United States yesterday evening, including my home county. The only reason I know about it is that I saw a flash of a local news headline come across my feed this morning. In some ways, that’s fortunate. It means I didn’t try to call 911 only to meet with…I don’t even know what the failure state was. A busy signal? Endless ringing? An automated voice telling me my call couldn’t be completed? All I know is that it’s the last thing I’d want to find out if I’d actually needed emergency services at that moment, and it reminded me that while we’re super spoiled with 911 services in modern America, they’re also imperfect and unreliable.
If 911 isn’t available, will you know? It was announced on some Twitter feeds and through other social media outlets. Those, along with the news, were of course a bit behind the actual outage. One of the ones I checked this morning apparently didn’t even post until everything was back up and running (they were probably a little busy, to be fair). They were still the first to report, so if you follow those accounts and are paying attention, you had a chance of knowing in time to stop you from calling a now-useless number. But let’s be real – that’s basically just getting lucky. That the notice will be posted in time. That you’ll see it. That you’ll remember it. That you’ll know what to do instead.
Most police departments or emergency services dispatch centers have a non-emergency number available. In my area, they want you to use 911 anyway, as I found out once when I tried to call to report a non-urgent issue. It was frustrating at the time because I’d had to dig quite a bit to find a non-911 number that someone would answer in the off-hours, only to be told to that they couldn’t help me unless I called 911. Of course, with 911 unusable last night, the non-emergency lines were pressed into service. Some were reported with the social media posts warning people that they wouldn’t be able to use 911. Others, you had to search a little harder for. You might want to take this opportunity to dig out the numbers for where you live, work, and play, and program that into your phone now. Make sure you put them under a name you’ll remember under stress.
Here’s the thing, though. Even if you reach emergency services, they still might not be able to help you. As anyone who has ever been in the fringes between jurisdictions can tell you, sometimes your cell phone 911 call gets picked up by the wrong tower and routed to the wrong county or city, adding confusion and interminable response time before police, firefighters, or medics can show up at your location. And if you don’t know exactly where you are when you call, they might not be able to find you anyway. Common advice says you should know your location’s address no matter where you go, exactly for the purpose of summoning help. Be honest here: do you really check and know all of them, for every place you spend any amount of time at? And can you landmark them for someone who needs to find you, in case the address is confusing for some reason? I’ve lived in several places where Google Maps couldn’t direct people to my actual home. Great for privacy; not so great if I needed the cops stat.
Say you’re able to call, and direct emergency responders to you. Will they come in time to help you with a truly urgent situation? Often not. The average police response time across the country is generally reported at around ten minutes. That’s a long time, no matter how you cut it. No matter what’s going wrong that you need outside help, odds are pretty good that it won’t come right away. And in those moments? It’s all up to you. Someone may be coming to save you, but you have to make sure you’re still there to be saved. Are you prepared?